From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Mortis Persona

Caldus felt the color drain from his face when the undertaker offered him Aper’s death mask.

“I put the life of Aulus Vedius Aper in your hands,” the undertaker said.

The funereal chamber, already cramped with other actors and musicians holding pipes and horns and lyres, seemed to close in on Caldus. Of all the roles he could have been offered, of all the ancestors the family wanted present at tonight’s funeral for the late Manius Vedius Sorex, why did it have to be Aper?

Caldus glanced toward his sister Portia, who stood among the rest of their acting troupe, all dressed in togas of dark-colored wool. Portia’s kohl-lined eyes widened, and she shook her head, the movement quick yet subtle.

Caldus’ throat grew thick with fear. As an actor, he had been trained to keep his mind separate from a death mask’s spirit, even as the deceased soul entered his body for the funeral rites. But as law decreed, he had only ever played the roles of strangers. If the distance between a spirit and the mask’s wearer had been bridged in life, as it had been with him and Aper, one could wind up like the city magistrate who was said to have put on his wife’s death mask in the hopes of one last goodbye. Though only a child at the time, Caldus remembered the man raving through the streets, wide-eyed and naked.

The undertaker leaned in close to Caldus, reeking of the gypsum plaster he used to embalm bodies. “We’re already behind schedule.” His eyes darted toward the narrow staircase that led up to the mourning family’s shrine. The family was gathered there now, observing the body of Manius Vedius Sorex, Aper’s cousin, and likely growing impatient for the funeral procession to begin.

“Offend such a well-paying family,” the undertaker added, “and I may be forced to hire one less actor next time.”

Caldus cast another glance at Portia; again she shook her head. Yet what excuse could he possibly give to the undertaker? To refuse the mask without reason would be a sign of disrespect–cause for the grieving family to deny wages to their entire troupe. But to admit that he, a lowly actor, had once shared a bed with the nobleman whose mask he held would bring enough shame to destroy both the family and the troupe.

Caldus took the mask with trembling hands, the wax oily against his sweating palms. “I will honor this death with my life.”

The undertaker gave an indignant sniff, then moved on to distribute the remaining death masks. Even if he suspected the reason for Caldus’ hesitation, he would have little sympathy. The man took any delay for any reason as a personal affront.

Portia hurried to Caldus’ side. “You can’t wear it.”

“I have to. We need the work.”

“But–”

“We need the money,” Caldus said more emphatically.

Portia nodded, gaze fixed on the floor, hands to her stomach. She wasn’t showing yet, but when she did, she would be forced to leave the troupe–no wages, and the father who could have provided for her and the child was dead of the same sickness that had taken Aper.

Caldus traced a finger down the mask, the way he would have Aper’s cheek when he was alive. The eyes stared back at him, lifeless, yet painted the perfect shade of blue. The wax had captured Aper’s long, thick lashes, but also the cracked lips and pocked skin left by the Black Fever.

“It looks so much like him,” Caldus said.

The prospect of donning a death mask normally would have excited him. While the mask maker’s job was merely to capture a person’s semblance with wax and paint, Caldus’ was to become that person for a time–sometimes young, sometimes old, always someone with more money and power than he would ever have. Even if the life he assumed had been one of tragedy, it was no matter. When the mourners extinguished the funeral pyre, he would remove the mask and be only himself once more. But to be with Aper again, so intimately within one body–would he be strong enough to let go when the time came?

Portia turned him away from the other actors and whispered, “We’ll switch masks.”

“Are you mad?” Caldus blurted. Playing another gender was a transgression the undertaker would be certain to notice. “There isn’t a troupe in Rome who would hire us after that.”

“You’re the one risking madness if you–”

“You risk the same acting at all in your condition.”

The rebuke, though meant to be a whisper, came out louder than Caldus had intended. He and Portia glanced about with anxious eyes, but no one seemed to have heard them over the sound of musicians tuning strings and tapping drums to ensure that they had drawn the skins tight enough.

Portia lowered her head. With a child’s soul growing within her, wearing any death mask at all was a risk, be it a stranger’s or not.

“Places!” the undertaker called over the noise. “The family is ready.”

He shooed everyone through the chamber’s street-level entrance, where the smooth marble beneath Caldus’ sandals gave way to the bumps and crevices of cobblestone. Outside, the darkness was deep–funerals for the rich were usually held at night to discourage crowds–but torchbearers waited at the foot of the stairs that led out of the shrine’s upper level. The flames they carried would light the path ahead, past the red-tiled roofs and ornamented facades of the homes lining the street.

While the musicians assumed their places at the front of the procession, the actors climbed into the horse-drawn chariots that would follow. Each chariot, bronze embossed with the visages of emperors past, allowed room for only a coachman and two actors.

“Take the mask off if it’s too much,” Portia whispered as they slipped into one. “I’d rather your sanity than money.”

“I’ll be fine,” Caldus said, though there was no hiding the quaver in his voice.

The first note of the funeral dirge sounded: a single note on a trumpet, as piercing as a child’s wail. Aper’s relatives emerged from the family shrine and descended the steps, flanking a black-shrouded litter on which two men carried the body of Aper’s cousin.

“Masks,” the undertaker said, darting down the line of chariots. “Masks!”

Caldus shivered, cold with fear, and lifted Aper’s death mask to his face. Though the eyeless visage blotted out the torchlight, plunging him into blindness, he reached behind his head with practiced hands and tied the cloth strips that would hold the mask secure. Smooth, cool wax pressed snug against his skin, and within it he sensed Aper’s presence. Most spirits pulsed with the gentleness of a caress; Aper’s beat against him so hard that his head began to pound in time.

Murmurs rose from the other chariots as the rest of the troupe spoke the ceremonial words to assume their roles. Portia gave Caldus’ hand a quick squeeze, then followed their lead: “I call forth Livia Severa.”

“I call forth . . .” Caldus swallowed hard, his throat so tight he could barely speak. “I call forth Aulus Vedius Aper.”

Since joining the troupe four years before, at the age of sixteen, Caldus had grown accustomed to the feel of a spirit entering him, like a breeze slipping beneath his skin. Aper’s, though, surged into him with an intensity that made him gasp. Emotions flooded Caldus with so much force that he couldn’t control them as he would have any other spirit’s: release and confusion, euphoria at feeling a body’s warmth after months without form, surprise at whose body it was.

Caldus? Aper’s voice in his head, coming as if it were his own thought. Caldus, what have you done?

Caldus gripped the edge of the chariot, gasping again. Aper’s presence felt like a storm rising within him, dangerous and beautiful and beyond his control. This was not a spirit hesitantly searching a new, unfamiliar body; this was one embracing what it had once known, though never with such intimacy.

“Careful, Aper.” Portia’s voice, though she spoke with a knowing tone that was not her own, but that of her role: Livia Severa, Aper’s great-grandmother. “They will not choose you for another procession if you damage your actor. He is young, but not invulnerable.”

Aper’s spirit shrank with panic until it felt like no more than a small knot within Caldus’ chest. Caldus began to breathe easier, and the sounds of the funeral procession filled his ears: hooves clapping against the road, wheels rumbling over the uneven stone, the mournful melody of a dirge played on pipes and flutes. They had begun moving forward without his notice.

I’m so sorry. Aper’s voice sounded small in his head, muffled. I would never hurt you.

I know. Sweat dripped down Caldus’ face, making the mask wet and uncomfortable. It’s all right.

Tentatively, Aper’s spirit expanded within him, then stopped.

It’s all right, Caldus told him again.

Aper’s spirit filled his whole being once more, but this time, Caldus was prepared. Stone by stone, he imagined building a wall around his own spirit to keep it separate from his one-time lover’s. Though such visualizations were normally easy for him, an actor’s most basic tool, his head throbbed with the degree of focus it took.

“My cousin is dead.” Aper’s words, though it was Caldus who said them aloud. Speaking another’s words had become commonplace for Caldus–such was the employ of an actor–but Aper had only been released from his mask once before, for the eulogy at his own funeral. Caldus sensed how confusing it still was for Aper to use another’s voice and body, to experience another’s feelings as readily as his own. And now, after so long within his mask, Aper was learning that the world had lived and changed while he had not.

“Six months–has it been so long?”

“It’s best you died then,” said Portia-as-Livia Severa, “before you could bring shame to our family. My actress is not so skilled at hiding things from me as she thinks. She knows what was between you, and now I do as well.”

Caldus winced at her words, a reaction that was as much Aper’s as his own. He could only hope that the chariot’s coachman was too occupied with the road to pay them any mind.

“Costumes for the dead,” Livia Severa added. “That’s all these actors are to people of our station. That’s all they should be to us.”

“You–”

Caldus bit back Aper’s retort. The effort sent a sharp jab through his head, and he cringed. Wresting control of his own body from a spirit had never been so difficult before, nor so painful. Still, part of him thrilled at Aper’s desire to defend him over such a slight, as misplaced as it was.

Disturb the funeral with a family squabble, Caldus chided, and you’ll cost me and Portia an entire night’s pay.

Aper’s spirit roiled. She’s a fool.

A moment of hurt and confusion passed before Caldus realized that Aper meant Livia Severa, not Portia. Both women were silent now, and Caldus suspected the only reason Portia had allowed the spirit to speak at all was to keep him focused.

Within him, Aper reeled through a tangle of emotions: anger mixed with shame, yearning for the life he had left behind intruding on his need to grieve for his cousin’s death. Caldus took advantage of Aper’s distraction to find the memory his low station had prevented him from being part of: Aper lying on his bed, shivering despite the thick blanket drawn over him, skin drenched with sweat. The window that overlooked the home’s central courtyard was shuttered, masking in shadow the bedroom’s gilded moldings and murals of mountain landscapes. Aper’s family crowded around him. His sister wiped his brow with a damp cloth while his brother hung a black cloth over the doorway.

No!

Aper’s spirit tried to pull away from him, so suddenly that a sharp pain shot through Caldus’ body. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out. The world, already black before him, darkened further. His head grew light, but just as the tug of unconsciousness became too strong to resist, Portia grasped his hand.

“Stay with me, Caldus.”

Caldus bit his lip, struggling not to pass out. Aper’s spirit settled within him, and the pain eased.

“I’m all right,” Caldus said, though his breaths came heavily. He pushed Portia’s hand away; the undertaker would dock their pay if he spied them breaking character.

I’m sorry, Aper said. I didn’t want you to see me like that.

I’m sorry too. Caldus’ cheeks flushed, hot with a shame they both felt–Aper for having hurt him, Caldus for having violated his lover’s memories, as if he were just another role to play.

The chariot halted with a jolt. Someone took Caldus by the arm and helped him out, stirring the same memory within him and Aper. This was how they had first met: Caldus playing the role of some distant cousin, Aper the one to escort him toward the funeral pyre, their eyes never meeting until the rites ended and Caldus removed his mask.

Caldus often thought of that night, but this time, Aper’s perspective began to intrude on his own. He remembered Aper walking away to join his family only to then be Aper, glancing back as he wondered who this actor was and what excuse he could make to seek him out later.

Caldus shook his head, forcing the memory away. It’s too much.

He stumbled, and the person escorting him gripped his arm tighter to keep him upright. A few more steps and they stopped, though Caldus heard the sounds of others still shuffling into position around them.

All these months, Aper said, there’s been no one else for you?

How could there be? Caldus replied, all the more pained for sensing that, had there been, Aper would have understood.

Aper’s spirit grew warmer within him, and it suddenly seemed as if it were something Caldus could wrap around himself like a blanket. His thoughts drifted to all the times they had fallen asleep in each other’s arms. Aper’s own memories of those nights surfaced as well, threatening to entangle with Caldus’.

I’ve missed you so much, Aper said, his voice like a caress.

The wall Caldus had earlier imagined around his spirit began to fall away, fading stone by stone until he could sense Aper with every inch of his body. He experienced memories they had shared, not as himself or as Aper, but with both their senses at once: he reached out to stroke Aper’s hair yet felt fingers trail through his own, whispered something in Aper’s ear yet heard it in his own. His head spun, too many thoughts and too many feelings that should have been in conflict existing as one, and yet the pleasure was maddening, an intimacy beyond anything he had ever known.

“Manius Vedius Sorex,” came the deep voice of the troupe’s lead actor, Quintus Modius Drusus, “we free your spirit from its mortal shell.”

Portia, Caldus thought. What had been a shudder of pleasure turned into one of panic. For a moment, he had lost all sense of the world around him, and then of himself–madness all the more frightening for the pleasure it had brought. Now, though, he was far too aware of the cool night air against his skin, the stifling warmth of the death mask pressing against his face.

Caldus?

Caldus imagined building a wall again, larger and thicker than before. His head pounded in protest, as did Aper’s spirit, as if he were flinging himself against the imaginary stone. Caldus wanted to take Portia’s hand again and draw on her strength to anchor him there, but she could be anywhere now–beside him still, or with a dozen people standing between them.

Speak to me, Caldus. Please.

Caldus concentrated on the sounds around him, imagining the scene as it played out: The family and the other actors would be gathered around the pyre now. Wood snapped and straw rustled–the body of Manius Vedius Sorex placed on the kindling. Clanks and rustling followed as people set jewels, clothes, and trinkets alongside the body–possessions the deceased had treasured in life. The lead actor Drusus would be kneeling before the pyre, holding up a wax cast of Sorex’s face, whispering the incantation that would bind his spirit to the mask. Then came a crackle of fire, the scent of wood and flesh burning; the pyre had been lit. As the body burned, it released Sorex’s spirit in a gale that only the actors and the spirits they were portraying could feel.

Help him, Caldus said, mentally coaxing Aper toward Sorex’s spirit as it threatened to dissipate into the night. You are here for your cousin, not for me.

If Aper had been anything to his family in life, it had been dutiful. Without hesitation, he stretched his spirit as far beyond the mask as possible, and the other ancestors who had gathered for the funeral did the same. Together, they became a whisper on the air, guiding Sorex toward the mask that awaited him.

As hard as he tried, Caldus couldn’t shake the feeling of resentment that always surfaced at this part of a funeral. Unlike someone of Aper’s station, his spirit would not be preserved when he died. Caldus’ soul would have no mask as refuge, no ancestors to guide it, and so it would scatter into the night like so many others.

“The spirit of Manius Vedius Sorex has come to rest,” Drusus declared. “Now we let him share his parting words as he leaves his mortal life behind.”

Again Caldus imagined what he could not see: Drusus putting on Sorex’s death mask. When Drusus’ voice next boomed forth, he spoke as Sorex, eulogizing the life he had left behind and the people who had been dearest to him. While his body burned behind him, he exchanged remembrances with those gathered, both the living and the dead. His voice overpowered the crackle of the pyre and the sound of insects chittering in the night, yet Caldus barely heard his words. Aper’s voice, though softer, was far too insistent in his head.

I wanted to speak of you at my funeral.

The words inspired as much pain as they did comfort. You were right not to.

We never had a chance to say goodbye, Aper said. Even at my funeral, you could not mourn completely as yourself.

We have the chance to say it now.

Aper’s spirit felt like probing fingers within him, in search of some vulnerability in the wall Caldus had put between them. Perhaps we’re not meant to say it at all.

Stop, Caldus said, though he shuddered with the temptation to let their spirits merge and lose himself once again; was madness so terrible a price to pay to be together like that? But then he thought of what Portia would be left with: a child and no money, and a brother raving through the streets.

Your family would destroy your mask if they found out, he told Aper. They would let your spirit vanish into oblivion with my own.

I don’t care.

“The dead have spoken, and now they shall return to their rest,” Drusus intoned. The closing words of the eulogy.

Aper’s sprit became a whirl of fear and panic. Stay with me.

My sister, Caldus said. She needs me.

Caldus reached for the mask, but his hands refused to move further. How could the gods be so cruel as to bring him and Aper this close only to tear them apart again?

“Caldus?”

Portia’s voice, soft yet urgent. However long Caldus had hesitated, it had been long enough for her and the other actors to remove their masks. Too much longer and the undertaker would notice that something was wrong and question his ability to perform again.

Caldus . . .

Too much longer and he might not care.

Don’t leave me.

Caldus untied the masks’ cloth strips, his stomach knotting. Don’t make me choose.

What he felt from Aper in that next moment told him all he needed to know: there was fear and yearning, but also a stab of guilt over his selfishness, acceptance despite his sorrow. Even if he could, he would never force Caldus to stay with him–and that made it all the harder to leave.

Goodbye, Aper.

Caldus removed the mask, cringing as Aper’s spirit was pulled away with it; it felt as if he were ripping off his own skin. For a moment, pain was all he knew, inside and out. But then a hand came to rest on his shoulder, and the world returned to normal: the night air brushing his sweat-drenched skin, Portia at his side, the only voice within his head his own.

“Are you all right?” Portia asked.

Caldus nodded, though he felt as if someone had cut away his innards and left him empty inside.

Aper’s family gathered closer to the pyre, where they would keep vigil until the body was consumed and they could collect the remains in a marble urn. The other actors, one by one, returned their masks to the undertaker.

Costumes for the dead, Caldus thought, recalling Livia Severa’s words. And what we are to the dead, the dead are to us. He had worn the lives of so many men, viewing them as additions to his repertoire, never appreciating until now that each had been someone’s son or brother, someone’s husband or father. Someone’s lover.

Caldus traced a finger down Aper’s mask. Even through the pain of removing it, he had heard Aper’s final words to him: not goodbye, but “Come back to me.”

#

Caldus woke with a cry he had been unable to give voice to in his dream–one in which he was Aper, trapped within his death mask. Though the familiarity of his dark, cramped bedroom surrounded Caldus now, the feeling of the dream hung heavy with him, overpowering everything else: He was trapped within wax, yet formless. Alone. Incomplete. In pain. Time passed without his sensing it, and though he had no voice, he screamed into the night.

Caldus leapt from his bed. He would sneak into the family shrine, put on Aper’s mask, and they would be whole again.

Before it’s too late, he thought, running through a doorway, down a hall, down a narrow staircase in the dark. Doors opened as he passed; neighbors murmured to each other.

Do they hear me screaming? Or do I still have no voice?

He burst outside, where Aper’s scream was not the only voiceless call in the night: the souls of the dead were all around him, whispering. They did not dissipate into oblivion as so many believed; they all became one.

How did I never hear this before? Caldus stared up at the sky, wondering if he could spy those souls in the darkness between the stars. Why do so many trap themselves within wax when we could all be one?

A hand closed around his arm, but Aper’s scream gripped him with more force.

“He would prefer the stars,” Caldus said. He shook off the hand and started forward, but the person who had grabbed him darted into his path: Portia, out of breath, the sound of tears in her voice.

“Stop, Caldus. Please.”

Awareness hit him like a slap. He was standing outside the small, drab apartment house in which he and Portia lived, dressed in only his nightshirt, pebbles digging into his bare feet. And he had been screaming.

“Come inside,” Portia said, taking him by the arm.

Caldus let her guide him back to the apartment house. All was dark along the street-level row of vaulted shops, but on the floors above, neighbors peered out their windows, backlit by the glow of oil lamps.

They must think I’ve gone mad.

With that thought came the fear that they were right, for though the night was silent, he could still hear Aper screaming.

#

The dream came every time Caldus slept. Most nights he made it no further than the front door of the apartment house before something roused him to his senses: a voice, a hand, sometimes the cold air outside. Once, though, he made it as far as the marketplace several streets away before Portia caught up to him.

“Do you know what people call you?” she asked while her daughter Sabina, nearly a year old now, played with a collection of wooden dolls at her feet. “Caldus the Raving Player.”

Caldus, only just back from a funeral, picked at the supper of porridge and lentils Portia had set out for him. “Better to be known as a mad actor than a bad one, I suppose.”

They both laughed at that, though Portia’s carried a nervousness that seemed her constant companion now.

It’s for your sake that I’ve any sanity left at all, Caldus wanted to say, but such words always failed to reassure her. All he could do was answer her worry with restraint: he had avoided so much as looking at Aper’s mask when it was in another actor’s hands. The undertaker had believed his story that Aper’s spirit was displeased with his performance and preferred to be played by someone else. And mad or not, the rest of the troupe at least respected him enough to keep his secrets as he did so many of theirs.

“I saw your friend Rutilus in the marketplace today,” Portia said. “He asked about you. He said you haven’t been by his shop in weeks.”

Caldus shoved a spoonful of porridge into his mouth. He had no appetite, but he also had no reply that would satisfy his sister. Voices from the surrounding apartments, muffled by walls of timber and mud brick, filled his silence–people about to settle to bed, perhaps wondering if their mad neighbor would run screaming past their doors again tonight.

“You should go see him,” Portia added.

Caldus nodded, though he had no intention of going. Rutilus was the kind of man whose attention he would have welcomed before Aper came along–kind, quick with a joke, and more charmed than frightened by Caldus’ peculiarities. But what touch or intimacy could equal the feeling of having felt a lover’s soul slip beneath your skin?

“You nod at everything,” Portia said, a hard edge creeping into her voice. “I could suggest that we drown Sabina in the river, and still you would nod.”

“I would never . . .” Caldus shoved his meal aside and sank back in his chair. “I’m sorry.”

Portia rubbed her eyes; the circles beneath them appeared deeper and darker every day. “You scare me, Caldus. Your fits are the only time you seem alive.”

They’re the only time I feel alive, he almost said. He wondered if part of his soul had been left behind in the death mask with Aper, leaving him hollow within, too numb to respond to any passion but madness. Even now, free from the spell of dreams, the urge to put on the mask and be whole again was like a constant whisper in his ear.

Perhaps this is true madness, he thought. To feel its pull and not give in.

Something tapped Caldus’ foot, and he looked down to find Sabina offering him one of her wooden dolls. So young, yet with such a quiet, measured air about her–no matter how often Caldus’ screams woke her, she never cried. With all of the roles Portia had played while pregnant, had something of those lives left their impression on Sabina?

Caldus took the doll from her. “For me?” He smiled, and the stiffness in his cheeks reminded him how little he did so without forcing it anymore. But to see his niece returning the smile, to think that he was the closest she had to a father–there were still things that could make him feel whole again.

“I’ll go see Rutilus tomorrow,” he said to Portia, and this time–for her sake–he meant it. “I promise.”

#

Caldus jolted upright in bed, biting back his cry before it could escape his lips. There was more to stay for now, a rustle of movement beside him, but Aper’s scream drowned out his thoughts. So much pain. His head felt as if it would split in two if he let their souls remain incomplete any longer.

Caldus leapt from bed but made it only a few steps before someone grabbed him and turned him around.

“It’s all right,” Rutilus said.

Slowly, Caldus became aware of the sweat beading on his skin, the warm air against his naked body, Rutilus stroking his hair to calm him.

“We’re getting better at this,” Rutilus said playfully. “I didn’t have to chase you out the door this time.”

Caldus wanted to laugh, but his knees grew weak beneath him. He sank to the floor, Rutilus easing his way down.

“Why are you still with me?” Caldus heard the tears in his voice, but forced them back. “Why stay with a lover who wakes to another’s cry night after night?”

“Sane men bore me,” Rutilus said.

This time, Caldus laughed. He let Rutilus lead him back to the bed, and in his arms, the screaming faded to a whisper. For a time, at least, he would not feel so incomplete.

#

“Is this the one, Uncle?”

In the dim glow of the shrine’s oil lamp, Sabina looked so much like Portia had at the age of thirty: sharply angled cheeks, round eyes, dark hair to her shoulders. Sabina had proven an equally talented actress as well–a career Caldus hated asking her to risk by sneaking him here to Aper’s family shrine. But while he remembered every route he used to take across these grounds when he and Aper would meet in secret, his body ached so much that he never would have made it on his own.

“This is the one.” Caldus lifted Aper’s death mask from its pedestal. When he had last held it thirty years before, his hands had trembled out of fear; now they shook with sickness, every muscle seeming on the verge of cramping.

“He was handsome,” Sabina said.

“Very.” Caldus chuckled, but immediately had to fight back one of the rattling coughs that plagued him now. “You better go,” he said to Sabina, casting a nervous glance around the chamber, full of empty spaces and shadows reaching out from behind fluted pillars. Generations of death masks stared sightlessly at them, trespassers on sacred space. “I wouldn’t want you to get caught and ruin your career over Caldus the Raving Player.”

Sabina placed a hand on his cheek. “Are you sure about this?”

“You’ll be losing me one way or another.” Caldus swallowed back another cough. When the tightness in his chest eased, he traced his fingers over Aper’s mask, following the same contours he had stroked so many years ago. “I’d rather this.”

“What do I tell my mother?”

“Tell her goodbye for me, that I stayed as long as I could bear.” Caldus placed his hand over hers and held it tight against his cheek. How ironic, he thought–he had left Aper behind to see that Portia and Sabina were taken care of, yet they had spent far more time caring for him instead. “And tell her it was worth staying.”

So many years, and yet the dreams had never stopped. With Rutilus, they had become something he could endure. But Rutilus was dead now, lost to a fire that consumed both him and his shop; his voice had joined the others Caldus heard whispering in the night. Now, Caldus was determined to see that Aper’s spirit found that release as well.

“I may live yet for a time,” he said, gently removing Sabina’s hand from his cheek, “but not entirely as myself.”

Sabina started to speak, the hint of tears in her eyes, but footsteps sounded from outside a nearby door. Caldus’ chest tightened with panic, then with the threat of another cough.

“Go,” he whispered, nodding toward another door on the chamber’s far end. “Stay to the route I showed you.”

Sabina kissed him on the cheek. “Goodbye, Uncle.”

I could have missed so much, Caldus thought as she hurried away. His chest burned with the need to cough, but he held it back. Then, once Sabina had disappeared through the door, it erupted in a hack so forceful that he doubled over in pain.

“Who’s in there?” came a voice, and the footsteps from beyond the other door drew closer.

Let them come, Caldus thought as he brought Aper’s death mask to his face and tied the cloth strips to hold it secure. Whoever it was, they would at least be too occupied with him to know that Sabina had ever been there.

“I call forth Aulus Vedius Aper.”

Aper’s spirit rushed forth, like a cold wave crashing not over him, but through him. Caldus’ knees buckled, and he fell to the floor, dimly aware of someone shouting at him, trying to pull the mask away.

I’ve waited too long, he thought, clutching at the mask and gasping for air. I’m too weak.

But then Aper’s voice filled his head, and with it came warmth.

Caldus?

Aper’s spirit pulsed within him, euphoric, like an unrestrained pounding of drums. This time, Caldus built no walls between them. He let his soul melt into Aper’s until all sense of his aching body and the hands pulling at the mask began to disappear. And just before their spirits merged completely, he shared with Aper the last words that would be fully his own:

I’ve come back for you.

Barbara A. Barnett is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she learned valuable things about writing and the evil ways of chickens. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Black Static and Daily Science Fiction and has appeared in publications such as Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, and Hub. She lives with her husband in southern New Jersey, works as a grant writer for a theater company in Philadelphia, and frequently bursts into song. You can find her online at www.babarnett.com.